For August, we have a short story from Elissa C. Huang, about a young woman who returns to the town she grew up in, years after a tragedy that rips her family apart. It's a story that is eerie, heartbreaking, and unsettling in many ways, with an ending that just might surprise you.
— Karissa Chen, Senior Literature Editor
Everything looked smaller, closer together than she remembered. It seemed impossible to reconcile the disparity between her memories and what stood before her. Had the library, once impressive with its stately columns, always been hidden behind a row of dogwoods? Were the grocery and liquor stores always next to each other? The only reason why she knew it hadn't altogether been a dream was because everything retained a hint of familiarity, some small detail that triggered a wave of nostalgia. A wind chime made of keys still hung on Mrs. Hughes' porch. The school still had no windows, a purposeful design feature that kept the inside in a constant flood of fluorescent lighting. Odette remembered how when the final bell would ring, all the kids would venture slowly onto the sidewalk outside like hermits coming out of a cave, seeing sunlight for the first time in ages.
Even more trying on the mind was the unoccupied space where things once stood, like the old toy store with the mechanical horse in front that would buck maniacally on its own at times, now replaced by an empty lot. Or there were new additions, like the sign in the gas station window offering automated car washes. The once charming diner where everyone would gather after the movies let out was now a slicker, brighter version of itself. All throughout the town, pieces of the picture seemed to morph and shift, shrinking, leaving spaces. This new picture—a small town slowly shedding its skin, replacing mom and pops with chains, adding lanes and traffic lights—didn't seem to fit with the picture of a town that only a decade ago was the site of one of the biggest school shootings in America. It was as if, by shedding some of what made the town unique, it would just blend in with the rest, like it had never happened.
She had fallen asleep on the train. A trail of drool pooled onto the jacket balled up in the crook of her arm. Embarrassed, she found herself leaning on the woman's shoulder next to her. The woman did not look pleased, as if she had tried to correct Odette's posture several times already.
“Sorry,” Odette mumbled, straightening herself. The woman gave her a curt nod before snapping her newspaper straight. She reminded Odette of the people that would come into the restaurant and order, micromanaging the details of the food in a bored voice, all without looking up from their phones. Despite being dressed sharply, they always tipped badly.
Pressing her forehead on the window, watching the string of towns zipping past, Odette felt a quick moment of panic. Where was she? Had she missed her stop? She peered harder, trying to find a landmark, something to assure her of her place. Not daring to ask the woman, she resigned herself to wait until the train stopped in order to orient herself. She tugged at her locket, flipping it around and around. Round and smooth, the clear pane was filled with sea glass and sand; she was never without it. The train's rattle as it barreled over the tracks soon lulled her into a hypnotic state again. When it came to a screeching halt at her stop, the doors whipped open and she jerked alert, quickly gathering her things. There was no time to apologize as she pushed her way off the train, crumpling the woman's newspaper with her duffel bag.
Outside, the passengers flooded out, moving around and past her begrudgingly, aggressively. Odette dodged out of the way and gripped the railing. Below her, the parking lot was dotted with cars that zipped in and out with precision—doors opening, people exiting, people entering, doors closing. The train chuffed loudly once before lumbering away. It was only as the last cars were pulling out of the lot that she realized she was still clasping the cold metal bar, her knuckles white from how tightly she held on. A child's laugh made her turn around, but when she turned, the platform remained deserted. With nobody to receive her at the station, she put on her coat and began to walk towards town.
“Holy shit, Odie! Is that you?”
With a bit of trepidation, Odette turned to the shrill voice.
“Oh, the city made you all fancy? Only my mom calls me that!” Short, perky, and freckled, Annie embraced her with ten times the strength someone her size should have had. It took Odette's breath away. “Why the hell didn't you tell me you were coming?”
“I didn't have anyone's number.”
“Girl, there's this thing called the internet, and before that, there was this thing called a phone book.”
“Well, it was all really last minute.” Odette looked over her shoulder expectantly. She wasn't sure why she had walked this way, through the main strip. Force of habit, perhaps. From an early age, she had been told to always walk on busy streets, to look straight ahead, and not to dress or speak in ways that provoked attention. Her little brother was never given such instructions. Odette would point out that being the only Asian family in town already drew inquisitive looks, but her parents knew that. They got the looks, too. Odette had mostly tried to forget how the seemingly innocent stares were sometimes laced with an unspoken warning, a distrust.
“When's the ceremony?” Odette blurted. She knew the answer of course, but it was one of those ways to fill the awkward silence.
“Tomorrow at four. Where you staying?”
“At the Washington Inn. I should probably get going.” A man came out of the post office. He glanced in their direction, lingering at his car a beat too long. Odette averted her gaze.
“Really? Did you make a reservation?” pressed Annie.
“Huh? No, I didn't think it would be busy.”
“Oh, it's not busy. That's for sure.” Odette stared blankly and Annie gave a small smile. “It burned down last September. Come on, you're staying with me.”
And with that statement, she hooked her arm through Odette's and pulled her along.
For someone so commanding, Annie drove like a turtle, her joints greased by molasses. It was as if she was forcing Odette to look, look all around her. Tucked at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac, the bi-level that housed the shooter and his family had gone untouched, as if people didn't want to draw too close. The house was now relegated to the whispers of childhood myths and legends. Odette had been there once, a long time ago. Her mother had joined a ladies' Bible study group, hoping that she could improve her English and make a few friends, but the whole experience had proved futile. Odette remembered asking her mother why the entire house was up top; it like everything had been flipped backwards. Her mother had shushed her in Taiwanese, before staring uncertainly at the crudité platter. The idea of eating vegetables raw was as strange to her as eating raw fish was strange to the Americans.
Annie parked directly facing the house, letting the engine idle. Odette busied herself with a frayed string on her sleeve, grateful when Annie pulled out a joint from the visor and lit it. She smoked it down halfway, taking long deliberate drags, before passing it to Odette.
“I see them in town sometimes. I followed his mom around the store once. She was going on, all normal? And I wanted to see her, I don't know. I wanted to scare her or something. Really let her know. Let her know that it wasn't okay, that he's still alive, that they're still here. But I couldn't say it. A bunch of kids egged their house last Halloween. His dad must have cleaned it up at night because everything was gone by morning.”
Odette finished the joint quickly, flicking the roach out the window. Exhaling slowly, she watched as the blackened paper flew in a long arc before fizzling out in the lawn.
Annie held her hand out, showing Odette how it trembled ever so slightly. “I see someone reach into his pocket for change or whatever, and I'm ready. To run, to fight.” She shrugged. “Let's get out of here.”
As they pulled away, Odette thought she saw someone peering out at them. But then the blinds laid flat and all was still again.
Without asking, Annie pulled into the cemetery and parked the car.
“I just thought, you know,” she offered meekly.
Odette didn't answer for a long while. Then she whispered, “Yeah.” She didn't move.
Annie pulled open the glove compartment and took out a pack of gum. She jammed three sticks in her mouth, offered the last two to Odette. As they sat and chewed, Odette suddenly popped her gum with a loud crack. Annie echoed her.
Finally, Annie ventured, “How are your parents?”
“My mom moved back to Taiwan to take care of my grandma last year. Dad's remarried. He's got a baby, a boy. Haven't been to see him yet,” Odette replied flatly. “Looks cute from the pictures he sent.”
“That's good. Not all babies are. Cute, you know. But most of them grow out of the ugly. Like me. I was an ugly ass baby.”
Odette snorted. Annie blinked at her innocently, as if daring her to speak before continuing, “My mom, charmer she is, told me she thought about swapping me out for the Gerber-looking one in the next room at the hospital. I only go over for Sunday dinners now. The worst hour of my week, easy. What an awful woman. Mean drunk.”
Knowing the truth of this, Odette did her best impression. “'You Orientals, speaking your secret language, I bet you're all talking about people behind their backs. You're in America, you speak American!'”
Annie shook her head, “Remember the time she drove me to school and just about ran over the principal? 'Jesus Christ, Mr. Delmonte! Something wrong with your jaw? Pick it off the fucking ground, then!'”
“God, does she still drive?”
Annie breezed back, “Oh, they suspended her license years ago. She threatened to sue them. But who's gonna stop her? They look the other way now. Like Billy J says, only the good die young. She'll outlive us all.”
They were both giggling a little too hard, a little too forced. As the joke petered out and the car refilled with silence, Odette murmured, “You're a good daughter. You're a good friend.”
Annie squeezed her hand, gripping it so tight her knuckles went white. “It gets easier, Odie. That's what people say, anyways. We have to believe something, right? Want me to...?”
Odette shook her head and opened the car door, her legs propelling her of their own accord until they stopped in front of the tombstone, much smaller than the others surrounding it. A child's grave. Not just any child, her only brother. There were others. The ghosts of all the children hung in the air. Nobody had been by to sweep the grounds since the leaves fell. She knelt gingerly in front of the marble slab, delicately tracing her fingers along the sharp grooves of the letters:
You are gone, I remain
Until the day we meet again
She thought often about how there was no way of knowing, no guarantee, that the words were true. Like all things in life, there were no absolutes, despite desperately seeking and needing them. He had only been eight. Eight, an auspicious number, except when it wasn't. Eight, the infinity symbol on its side. Eight, small circle on top of a large circle, an upside down bi-level.
She knew now that a bright and sunny day was still a bright and sunny day, even as the teachers gathered them all in the dark of the dimmed auditorium as the school went on lockdown. The room was already buzzing with murmurs of gossip, some people were crying. Odette thought nothing of it until she saw that some of the teachers were crying, too. The words out of the principal's mouth felt rehearsed, like a newscaster's.
The shooter was at the elementary school. He was just a child himself, they were saying. A name that sounded familiar, but at the same time foreign. She knew that time was a trickster, ebbing and slowing before the true horror and realization set in, before the dots were connected. Names were called out loud. She was one of them. They waited in the office, as they each dialed and redialed their numbers with a growing panic. It's busy, everyone is calling at once, the lines are jammed, she thought.
She understood now that when the call finally went through, when it kept ringing and going to voice mail, it had given her a quiet moment of relief, allowing her some distance, some hope. She knew now the mixture of embarrassment and pain at hearing the guttural cries of grief of her own mother and father, and how the nothingness coming from her own mouth was because the scream could not make its way out of her throat. There was so much rage in the world, so much raw aggression, so much hate, and on the other end of the spectrum, so much helplessness, desperation, and anguish. And all of it was unleashed inside her on that day.
Things had changed quickly between them the summer before he died. He had pulled a chef's knife on her the week before. Not that he was going to use it or anything. It was the beginning of a break between them. She had shoved him down a flight of stairs. They fought with a violence that unnerved their parents. Odette and Lincoln's emotions ran high. They had been the best of friends. The shift had been sudden, the kind of fresh anger borne from a fundamental betrayal.
Their parents had decided that Odette could begin watching Lincoln after school that year so their mother could return to work. As newly minted latchkey kids, it was a badge of honor to have those few hours of freedom before dinner. They'd ride their bikes through people's backyards, teasing the dogs on leashes into a frenzy as they whizzed by, just out of reach. Sometimes they'd cut through the woods, catching the older kids gathering around a bonfire with their beer cans. One of the boys had called out to them once as they pedaled by. Odette and Lincoln had not stopped, inexplicably afraid.
Once they reached the movie theater, they'd lock up their bikes in front and scurry through an exit door propped open by the smokers that worked the concession stand. It was a discovery that had been made after many weeks of staking out the place, carefully timing their entry. The rush they felt the first time they sneaked in didn't diminish with each subsequent visit. Usually, they could only catch the first half of a film before they had to head home. New releases came weeks, even months later to their town. But Odette and Lincoln didn't care. The movies taught them about kissing and sex, love and heartbreak, life and death. It showed them other lifestyles, the lavishly rich, the piss poor, and left them feeling altogether ordinary. This fantasy life enticed them like a drug, gluing them to their seats. They found themselves staying for just a few minutes longer each time until one day, they slipped out during the end credits and found that it was dark outside.
“Crap, Odie! Ba's going to be so pissed.”
“I know, I know. Okay, let me think.”
They hopped on their bikes and began pedaling. Odette started to concoct a lie, something that made sense. She felt a chill of panic slip over her; they were going through the woods now and it was hard to see. Twisted roots made the spokes on their tires rattle, she smelled the smoke and lighter fluid before she saw the shadows of the boys. Suddenly, Lincoln yelped. He had hit a rut and the handles slipped out of his grip, sending his small frame up and over into the soft dirt. Odette jumped off her bike to try and help her brother, but his ankle had turned underneath him and he was whimpering.
“Hey, what's going on here?” a voice drawled behind her.
“Nothing,” Odette snapped back. “It's just a fall. We're leaving.”
“Here, let us help you,” another voice leered.
“No, we're fine. Thanks.”
“Aw, what's the matter? You're too good for our help?”
“Odie, it really hurts.”
“Aw, it really hurts,” purred another voice. “Should we call a doctor?”
They were surrounded now. Odette thought there were only four or five boys, but she couldn't be sure. Lincoln seemed to not pick up on what was going on.
“My dad's a doctor.” One of the boys was right behind Odette. He clutched at her budding breasts then, his cheap beer breath hot on her ear. She froze, not sure whether she'd scream or cry or wet her pants.
Lincoln pleaded, “Can you take me to him? Please?”
“Shut up, Linc,” Odette hissed through her teeth.
“Sure, we'll take you to him. But you gotta pay first.”
“Our dad has money,” Lincoln pleaded.
“Oh he does, does he?”
Odette's body began to shake. Two arms held her in place, but they needn't have. She was too paralyzed with fear. One by one, the boys groped her in the dark silently, pinching at her between her legs, while she stood perfectly still, willing them to stop. Her eyes had begun to adjust to the dark, and she wasn't sure if she knew the boys from school or not. She could only hope that Lincoln couldn't make out what was happening as one of the boys shoved his hand down the front of her underwear, squeezing and cupping awkwardly. And just as quickly, he yanked his hand away, like it had been burned.
“We'll take these,” he stated, kicking at one of the bikes.
“Mosquito bites for tits,” another chortled as they began to walk away with their bounty. Odette could see the boy shove his hand in the others faces, taunting them to smell it as they sauntered off with their bikes. Her body folded over on itself and she felt the tears well up.
“Odie? Are you okay?”
“Let's go home. Come on, hop up.” Lincoln straddled her back, wrapping his arms around her neck, and she began to run. The branches scratched at her face, but she didn't care.
When they got home, she offered a feeble tale and was berated for her carelessness, for her irresponsibility. They said she should have known better, being the older one. Lincoln suggested that they call the police and report the theft, while their father shook his head vehemently because you just didn't do that, you left people like the police alone back in his country; this country was no different.
You could have been kidnapped, their parents say. Murdered, even. Well, we weren't and we're here, she retorted. Accusations were shouted, chairs overturned, a slap, the threat of a belt. Their father demanded the house keys back upon seeing Lincoln's bruised ankle, but their mother bristled at the idea, calling it ridiculous, saying that they both needed to work and who did he think would let them into the house. Her eyes tried in vain to meet Odette's, but her daughter kept her eyes downcast, shielding them all from the shame she felt. Perhaps sensing something far more ominous, they stopped pressing the issue.
Odette felt exposed at school after that. Jeers and snickers at her expense. It was a relief to close the doors behind her when they got home. Lincoln would suggest playing cards or a board game, but she made one excuse or another, retreating in front of the television, numbly flipping through the channels. Eventually, Lincoln would go to his room to read his comic books or fiddle with his train set. By summer's start, he had begun to hang with out with a group of boys his age. Odette overheard them talking one day.
“Hey, let's go see something. One of those sequels.”
“What if I didn't see the first one?”
“Who cares? You don't have to!”
“I don't have any money.”
“We don't need any. I know a way. My sister used to take me.”
And like that, their secret escape was no longer their secret anymore. Odette found herself resentful and sullen. She'd snap at her brother, ordering him around, belittling him in front of his friends. They called her a bitch, and she lived up to the name.
The last morning she saw him alive, their mother had made them the Taiwanese equivalent of pancakes, savory with scallions and ginger, served with a soy dipping sauce. Without thinking, Odette had grabbed maple syrup and poured it over the top of her stack. Lincoln had mindlessly followed suit. Both of them realized their mistake in unison, but remained poker-faced about it. Then, with an exaggerated pour, Odette drowned hers in even more of the syrup. Lincoln did the same, a goofy smirk creeping across his lips. Their mother had protested at first, but let it go as her kids were eating peacefully for the first time in weeks, momentarily restored to brother and sister.
Now whenever Odette remembered the taste of the sweet and salty chewy dough, a twang of pain formed in her chest.
After a dinner of pasta and many glasses of wine, Odette said she was going for a walk and asked Annie to leave the light on. As she made her way along the sidewalk, she saw a bush rustling. Without warning, a little white rabbit leaped out and skittered across her path. It darted across the street, its pink eyes fixated on her. The two of them stared at each other for a moment, and it began hopping slowly through the yard. Odette followed, street after street, most of them named after birds-—Dove Court, Quail Ridge Lane, Albatross Avenue—until she found herself on the un-bird-like Eastern Drive. Eastern what, she now wondered. Bluebird, owl, meadowlark? The rabbit was gone now, but she knew where it was leading her.
The house stood on an unassuming corner of the street. It was gray and had dark shutters now, a far cry from the pale yellow and white their father had painstakingly painted. They had been the only house in the neighborhood without a fence, without a paved driveway. Being the only yellow house in a sea of whites, browns, and grays made it easy for visitors to find them, as if the big red Taiwanese symbol for “prosperity” hanging on the front door weren't enough of a mark.
While the other kids had played hopscotch on their smooth driveways, and jumped rope, Odette and Lincoln had built small villages with the jagged white rocks of theirs. They liked to tease the slugs out and trick them into the piles of salt that they poured as traps for them. Their mother would chastise them, telling them to stop being cruel. How would you like having your body melted away, she said. You wouldn't want to dissolve either, she concluded. But Ma, Lincoln would protest, they can't feel anything, they're just slugs. Their mother would cluck disapprovingly, Life is life; slug or not, it's all precious. Nagged into submission, they'd wait until she went back into the house before starting in with the salt again.
The inside of the house was where their father had really put every ounce of effort, of his love. He had laid the hardwood floors by hand, top to bottom, laminating them so thickly that they always looked wet and glossy. Paintings that evoked his home country filled the walls—cranes, fishing boats, mountains. He especially adored the ones with mountains. Their mother was from the city; she used to laugh about how she married a poor country boy and blindly followed his dreams across the sea.
It was in this house that Lincoln had gotten extremely ill one night. Their father was away on business, so it was just Odette and her mother. As Lincoln's fever rose higher and higher, his body began to shake and convulse. She heard her mother on the phone, in her soft accented English, phoning for help. Never once did she lose her calm, though her voice wavered as the paramedics questioned her. They had torn away in the ambulance and in the panic, left Odette behind in the street in her pajamas, holding his teddy bear.
Scared to be alone and with nowhere else to turn—the crowd had mostly gone back into their homes—Odette knocked on Annie’s door. The two girls stepped carefully around the empty cans of beer littered on the floor and ignored the snores from Annie’s mother, passed out in the back room. They stayed up late and watched a movie on television that night. Something about an alien blob that consumed the people of the town, growing bigger and stronger with their blood. The teenagers had tried to warn the townspeople, but the adults hadn't listened. It was probably something that they shouldn't have been watching; both girls had nightmares in the weeks that followed. Odette took to sleeping with a nightlight again after that.
Odette noticed how the yard was now fenced in, and the little pear tree that she and Lincoln had grown had been uprooted. The house now looked like every other house on the block, save for a single row of bright tulips in the front. She imagined that a pool, probably underground, was hidden behind the fence. She had always had a secret fantasy of having a pool. All the neighborhood kids would come after school to swim and splash around in it, her mother would serve them cookies and milk, not the bowl of noodles she used to greet them with. In this fantasy, some of the kids would stay late, and her parents would order them pizza and let them blast their music loudly.
In reality, her parents often asked her about her friends, wondered why more of them didn't come over. They thought she spent too much time with Lincoln, playing with trucks and planes, their made-up games with ever-changing rules. Odette didn’t have the heart to tell them that her only friend’s mother was the town drunk, that she clung to Lincoln because he could escape with her into a world where their parents couldn't follow, somewhere she couldn’t feel the disappointment of their unfulfilled dreams.
Lincoln had trailed behind Odette constantly as a child. She'd often turn around mid-thought and bump into him, knocking him over. Anything that she did, anything that she said, he listened. He followed. He trusted. Wholeheartedly and completely. They were supposed to have grown up in this house. She would have left first, and him second. They were supposed to return as adults on Thanksgivings and holidays, and then later, the sound of their own children's laughter would have skipped through the air. All of that was gone now.
As she stood there in the street, looking at this house, now completely unfamiliar to her, a light turned on in the upstairs bedroom. A woman parted the curtains and called out, “Who's there?”
Odette quickly ducked into the shadows, pressing herself against the fence. Her heart began to quicken as she wondered if the woman was alone, if she had a dog, if she had a gun. The voice was not an unfriendly one, but nothing in this town was to be trusted. Odette remembered how a few days after the last funeral, the neighbors had begun visiting families en masse, going down an alphabetical list someone in the mayor’s office had compiled. Lincoln Wu. Their house was the final stop on the mourning tour. Odette opened the door to plates of brownies and pies, sweets upon sickening sweets, followed by endless queries about how Odette and her parents were doing, how they were handling their loss. When the pitying clucks came about what a tragedy it all was, how young he had been, how much potential he had had, Odette had wanted to shove them all back outside, away from her space, away from her house. It was the first time she or her parents had seen many of the neighbors, and most of them had not known Lincoln at all or bothered to return their hellos.
The whole thing stunk and Odette told her mother to throw it all out, their concern was nothing more than gossip and fascination, laced with poison. They wanted to be close to the tragedy, like a child who dares to touch a flame; it allowed them to reaffirm and be glad that they had survived the thing unscathed. She had hated them all with a vitriol that surprised her, stuck in their comfortable homes, with their comfortable lives. Vultures, she had spat out. Her parents didn't know the bird, thinking she had picked up another unsavory word at school, and Odette hadn't felt like explaining.
The woman in the window leaned out now, the streetlight illuminating her face, shining off her gray hair, “Please come out. I know you're there.”
A glint of light twirled in the night. Odette felt a gasp catch in her throat. The woman's necklace was her own, the locket hers. Sea glass and sand. The woman's face was older and puckered with lines, her hands seemed shrunken, her eyes dimmer, her mouth pursed tighter, but it was unmistakable. The curve of her neck, the raised scar on her collarbone. But more than that was the invisible string that bound the two women together, a bone-deep sorrow that had ebbed with time but never faded away. A type of wound that could not be seen, only felt, borne out of catastrophic loss. And as Odette stepped into the moon's glow, her hands up in surrender, she found herself looking up in astonishment. The woman looked back equally stunned, for what else could one feel when seeing both your past and your future selves, reflected infinitely towards each other, in the same bewildering breath? A portal had been opened, overlapping realities. A step forward and everything around her would change. A step back and it would all stay the same.
Katherine Lam is an illustrator based in Queens, NYC.